The next chapter for DCFS
December 13, 2010
With Monday’s announcement that Trish Ploehn is departing as director of the Department of Children and Family Services, the county now has a unique opportunity—and heavy responsibility—to bring in an executive team skilled enough to remake an agency in crisis.
Los Angeles County has no greater duty than to protect children from neglect and abuse. But tragically, we’ve too often seen the fatal consequences of the human and institutional failures of the agency entrusted with this responsibility, the Department of Children and Family Services.
To be sure, there also is no duty laden with more landmines because of the sheer numbers of children in the system—more than 30,000. There is little margin for error. One missed sign of danger, one missed home visit, one failure to fully investigate the facts of a neighbor’s tip, can bring to an end a life that has barely begun. And one preventable death is one too many.
With the stakes so high, and the inherent difficulties so great, it’s imperative that the new director be a visionary leader and strong manager. He or she must be committed to operating with transparency and accountability. Openness, within the confines of privacy laws, helps inform policymakers and the public about what works and what’s wrong in the way we protect the children in our care.
The agency’s new director also must be guided by facts, not political orthodoxy or financial incentives that are favorable to the department but that may be jeopardizing children.
Currently, the county participates in a federal program that provides financial incentives for DCFS to shrink its foster-care rolls and leave more at-risk kids at home, while providing their families with various voluntary services. The sentiments behind the program are laudable: family preservation, maintenance and support. But given the circumstances surrounding numerous child deaths, the time has come for a new director to determine whether the department has grown too dependent on a funding scheme that exposes children to peril in irreparably broken families.
These are the facts: during the past three years, almost all L.A. County children who died because of abuse and neglect did so at home, not in foster care. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when we removed a child first and asked questions later. I am saying that our new director must investigate why this pattern of deaths exists. Are there common threads among these cases that have yet to be explored to see how we can make our current strategy safer?
Our new director must also be willing to tackle what surely will not be an easy sell within an entrenched DCFS bureaucracy that has seen no less than half a dozen directors in its 25-year history.
One of the department’s most crucial operations is its emergency response team. In it, are the people who assess the validity of complaints that flow non-stop into DCFS about the alleged mistreatment of children. A good decision on the front lines can protect a child from harm; a bad one puts the youngster in harm’s way. Yet the emergency response team is a first stop for new DCFS employees, whose lack of experience and training would seem to make them least qualified for this responsibility.
It is crucial that this situation be fixed. Experienced workers should be reassigned to areas where their skills are urgently needed. At a minimum, they could serve as on-the-job mentors for emergency response team staffers, some of whom openly acknowledge that they feel overwhelmed by and unprepared for the decisions and consequences they confront every day.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will embark on a broad and thorough search for a new DCFS director. I’m confident that this individual will not only have the right set of qualifications and experience for the job but a passion for the mission—a passion shared by thousands of DCFS workers anxious to help shape a new era.